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Multilingual students speak out

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Photo by Emma Harper

Mateusz Pietrzkiewicz, senior, speaks Polish.

Emma Harper, Staff Writer

35.8% of students speak a language that is not English, according to a February Bear Facts Student Media survey of 232 students.

“It’s kind of a neat thing to be bilingual. A lot of people look up to bilingual people like they’re geniuses or something,” said Mateusz Pietrzkiewicz, senior, who grew up speaking Polish. “I want to be seen as a genius,” he joked.

Joking aside, Pietrzkiewicz admits his language skills have declined from when he was younger, and he can not speak Polish as well anymore.

“It’s honestly one of my biggest insecurities because I kind of boast about being Polish too much. I really love being Polish, I love the culture, I love my heritage, I love the history of Poland and all that stuff,” Pietrzkiewicz said, “[but] I am not able to speak Polish all that well [anymore], I’m not able to connect [as well] with my family in Poland, which is definitely a sad thing for me. I do really wish I could speak more Polish.”

As a child, Pietrzkiewicz used to speak Polish often, but now he does not speak the language as much, part of the reason being that he is surrounded by English.

“Normally I watch and read media which is mostly in English,” Pietrzkiewicz said. “Also, I used to visit Poland a lot when I was younger, so I was able to connect to the language. Because traveling is expensive, I have not been able to do that, so I’ve lost touch.”

Pietrzkiewicz is not alone. Melodi Magluyan, sophomore, says she also lost some of her language abilities over the years. She speaks Tagalog, a Filipino language which only 1.4% of LZ students speak according to a February Bear Facts Student Media survey of 232 students. 

“I think I spoke it a lot more when I was younger, but as I grew older and started going to school in majority white suburban areas, I started speaking it less and my skill has kind of gone away,” Magluyan said. “I can still understand everything, but I can’t speak certain things like I did before.”

Pietrzkiewicz says, in his experience, many multilingual kids lose the ability to speak a first language, which has an impact on their connection to their culture.

“You kind of miss it, and you kind of feel shameful because you’re kind of losing the ability to connect with that community when you lose [the ability to speak] that language,” Pietrzkiewicz said.

Connecting with community and communicating with family is a big reason students have reported learning a language. It is part of the reason Amy Raj, freshman, speaks Tamil, especially to remain connected to her culture.

“Language is a part of my culture. I feel like we should probably learn it fluently. I feel like most people from different cultures at least know their language. It’s important and it’s a part of our identity,” Raj said.

Language is a part of not only personal identity, but family identity as well, and Raj uses Tamil to communicate with her grandparents.

“My grandparents don’t really know English,” Raj said. “They’ll speak to me in my language and I talk to them back [in Tamil]. That’s our only communication.”

Besides being able to communicate with others, Raj wants to know her language so she can pass on her culture.

“I feel at least to understand [my language] is important, because I feel like when I get older, I want my kids and everyone to know about the language,” Raj said. “I don’t want them to just keep English. I want them to understand both.”

Embracing culture and language did not come as easy for some. For Magluyan, being bilingual started as a source of embarrassment.

“I wasn’t able to fit in sometimes, because it was kind of weird. I did have a little bit of an accent as a kindergartener. I wasn’t the same as everyone else because I didn’t really speak the same,” Magluyan said. “[Now] I pride myself in being able to speak another language, but also to have another culture,” Magluyan said.

Being able to communicate with many people is important to Nada Kahouch, senior exchange student from Tunisia, who is one of 1.7% of students that speak four or more languages according to a February Bear Facts Student Media survey of 232 students. She speaks Arabic, French, English, and is learning Spanish.

“I never thought that I would be this interested in learning languages, but I think learning English kind of opened my eyes. In elementary school, I didn’t like French that much, [but] I grew to like it more in middle school and high school. Just practicing and seeing that I can learn the language makes me want to learn more languages,” Kahouch said.

Learning a language in school is an option as currently Spanish, French and German language classes are offered. However, 81.9% of LZ students wish there were more language class options according to a February Bear Facts Student Media survey of 232 students. In other countries, like Tunisia, learning three languages is a requirement and there are many more language options, Kahouch said.

“For us they offer German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, and Chinese,” Kahouch said. “The more options you have, the more interested people are in languages. If someone’s interested in anime or in Japanese culture, they would most likely learn Japanese: the more options, the better.”

Having more options might be beneficial, but some languages take more time to learn than others and would be more difficult to teach.

“I’d love it if they actually had [Tamil] in school, but it would be way more tough to do in a class. It’s just harder to learn and it takes more time,” Raj said.

Still, Raj said she is also learning Spanish through the school, although sometimes keeping track of three languages is difficult.

“It’s kind of complicated [with] three languages. [I’m] just learning Spanish and then I speak my language, Tamil, and English, and I keep on mixing them up, but it’s kind of funny,” Raj said.

Magluyan is learning Spanish in school as well.

“I’m taking Spanish because I think it’s very interesting, and it’s fun learning about the culture and being able to understand someone that I couldn’t understand two months ago,” Magluyan said.

Learning new languages is important, not just for fun, but also for traveling to other countries.

“I think that when you’re traveling somewhere, you shouldn’t depend on your native language to communicate with people, you should try and at least know the basics of the language that people are speaking there.” Kahouch said. “I think that shows respect and people will be more interested in showing you their culture.”

Being multilingual and learning new languages is an important aspect of many students’ lives. Knowing multiple languages helps people connect to their family, culture, and the world around them.